I exchanged some emails with Dietmar Offenhuber few years ago, when I was trying to persuade Carlo Ratti to participate in an ISWA event on megacities and waste management in Singapore. Back then, Dietmar was involved in the famous Trash Track project an initial investigation into understanding the waste ‘removal-chain’ in urban areas. He was kind enough and shared with me some of his innovative publications and I have used the Trash Track as an example of the great opportunities involved in using IT for better waste management.
So, when he informed me about his new book Waste is Information I was pretty sure that it will be a good and innovative one. Well, I think the book is one of the best books I have ever read about waste management. Dietmar Offenhuber, now an Assistant Professor at Northeastern University in the departments of Art + Design and Public Policy (you can find a short CV of Dietmar at the end of this post) examines waste from the perspective of information, considering emerging practices and technologies for making waste systems legible and how the resulting datasets and visualizations shape infrastructure governance. I propose this book to everyone that deals with waste management not only from a scientific point of view but also as a decision maker or taker, as well as a business actor. I thought that an interview with Dietmar will be fascinating for my readers and here it is. I am sure you will enjoy it, and I hope you will read the book too.
Your recent book speaks about Waste as Information and deals with the hidden wealth of information in the Waste Volumes and the Dumpsites. How did you develop this concept?
I think the concept of waste is fundamentally an informational one. Waste is what we no longer value, what has no longer individual properties. Many scholars have written about the central role of categorization systems in waste management. What happens to discarded materials is decided through these information infrastructures — how the waste stream is characterized, categorized, and consequently separated and sorted. Since waste management is traditionally a municipal responsibility, these information systems tend to be fragmented and sometimes incompatible at the larger scale.
What fascinates me, though, is that waste contains so much hidden information, to the extent that we can reconstruct whole biographies based on what people throw away. Waste system governance is therefore a perpetual negotiation between actors about information that is made explicit and information that remains latent, implicit.
I found extremely interesting and inspiring the notion of urban legibility—the idea that the city can be read like a text—and your contribution about the infrastructure legibility and the role of governance. Please introduce us to this fascinating idea.
A legible city is a city in which people are able to find their way without a map. How to design legible cities is a classic question in urban design, and the concept has been influential for other design disciplines. Apart from transportation systems, this notion has not been considered for infrastructure and public services, which occupy such a large part of the urban environment. Waste systems are not designed to be legible. But the actors – city officials, industry professionals, environmental activists, homeowners and so on — still try to make sense of these systems from their own perspective using various observations and data sources. In a democratic society, the different actors negotiate the governance of waste systems based on their individual ways of reading the system, which reflect their own interests and concerns. My book looks at attempts at making the waste system legible — not in form of a single authoritative map, but as a multifaceted account of the various social, political, technical, environmental, cultural … realities of urban infrastructure.
Your book builds on your experience from the famous Trash Track project in Seattle that used sensor technology to map discarded items through the waste and recycling systems – what are your lessons learn from this project?
This project has given us a glimpse into the global, complex, and multi-modal world of waste transportation. Of course there are many accounts of how the system should be, including flow diagrams, service contracts etc., but it has so far not been possible to directly observe the movement of individual waste items across different systems at the global scale. We learned that many LCA models such as EPA’s WARM model can underestimate the impact of transportation. We followed for example printer cartridges transported over thousands of kilometers by truck, train, ship, and plane, combining multiple modes of transportation. The diverse geography of waste transportation has also shown that there are no simple, black-and-white answers about how to deal with waste. Many different factors need to be considered, which brings us back to the design question.
Another project that is detailed in your book is the Forager project that looked at the informal organisation processes of waste pickers working for Brazilian recycling cooperatives. How is this project related with the concept of Waste as Information and the urban legibility?
Waste pickers have a very specific and highly refined way of reading the city. They know exactly where to find material, how to select it, how to transport it etc. Unlike waste management companies, they have to generate income mostly from selling material, and have formed cooperatives and associations to generate large enough quantities to sell directly to industry and circumvent middle men. Brazil has adopted a very progressive policy of integrating waste pickers into the formal system, but many social and economic challenges remain for the cooperatives. Information about materials, locations and commodity prices are crucial for waste pickers, and with the recent introduction of a shared responsibility reverse logistics policy information about the provenance of a piece of e-waste can determine its monetary value. But information management in the cooperative happens of course differently than in the formal system, and this is one aspect my book looks at.
The integration of the informal sector both in the developing and the developed world is currently a central issue for waste management and requires a nuanced understanding of these practices and the value they offer to the public.
Your book comes with some great suggestions about infrastructure governance and the role of stakeholders. Give us a brief idea of your suggestions
The paradigm of infrastructure and public service provision has changed, for better or worse. It is no longer an all-powerful central authority who builds, runs, and maintains all urban systems. Decentralized infrastructure governance has brought new actors to the table, but also led to a partial withdrawal of the public hand. Infrastructure provision has become more participatory, which can be both empowering for the individual but also create unjust burdens. In this paradigm, digital technology plays a large role, including citizen complaint hotlines and 311 Apps, and the whole field of Open Data and Civic Technologies in general.
I argue that we need to look at these technologies not as neutral tools, but as a form of public discourse that includes their creation, use, and maintenance. These technologies are never finished: protocols and service categories are constantly refined and adapted, and their web- and smartphone interfaces structure how citizens interact with their government. Their design is therefore political. In many US cities (and the Boston case discussed in the book is instructive due to the city government’s long history of innovation), citizens read the governance of infrastructure through the lens of 311 apps, which show them how the city responds to their requests, how infrastructure maintenance and service provision takes place. I argue that we should take advantage of developing these systems into tools for making infrastructure legible, to enable a two-way conversation between the individual and the local government.
Dietmar Offenhuber is Assistant Professor at Northeastern University in the departments of Art + Design and Public Policy, where he heads the Information Design and Visualization graduate program. He holds a PhD in Urban Planning from MIT, a MS in Media Arts and Sciences from the MIT Media Lab, and a Dipl. Ing. in Architecture from the Technical University Vienna. Dietmar was Key Researcher at the Austrian Ludwig Boltzmann Institute and the Ars Electronica Futurelab and professor in the Interface Culture program of the Art University Linz, Austria.
His research field could be described as Accountability Design – focusing on the relationship between design and governance. Dietmar is the author of “Waste is Information – Infrastructure Legibility and Governance” (MIT Press) and published volumes on the subjects of Urban Data, Accountability Technologies and Urban Informatics. His PhD dissertation received the Outstanding Dissertation Award 2014 from the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, his research received the Best Paper Award 2012 from the Journal of the American Planning Association.